Both presidential candidates oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free- trade deal among 12 Pacific Rim nations including the United States, and a cornerstone of President Barack Obama's focus on boosting relations with Asia.
Clinton's position has garnered accusations that she is flip-flopping because she supported the deal while serving as Obama's secretary of state.
But foreign policy veterans said Clinton is degrees apart from Trump, who has vowed to renegotiate NAFTA, the country's free trade deal with Canada and Mexico, and threatened to impose crippling tariffs on China. Those three countries are the top U.S. trade partners.
"Trump has a very protectionist, sort of fear-mongering mentality about trade and about immigration. Hillary Clinton has made a couple specific points. One, she doesn't like TPP in the current form," said Robert Hormats, vice chairman at Kissinger Associates.
"There's big a difference between not supporting that and being a person who whips up fear," he told "Squawk Box" on Friday.
Hormats has served in a number of government positions in both Democratic and Republican administrations, including as a senior economic adviser to Henry Kissinger and an under secretary of state to Clinton.
He warned that trade deals do not just strengthen economic ties, but fortify security alliances. The TPP aims to reinforce America's security relationship in Asia, just as a proposed free trade pact with the European Union would bolster NATO, he said.
"You need a strong economic relationship to underpin strong political and security relationships. If we don't have those, it really deprives us of a key element, both in Europe and Asia," he said.
The rise of the European Union and a more unified Asia demonstrate the link between increasing economic cooperation and security, said Nicholas Burns, former ambassador to NATO and under secretary of state under President George W. Bush.
Now a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Burns said Trump has not been honest in his representations of NAFTA.
"I think the major culprit here is Donald Trump. He's created this climate of fear and protectionism," he told "Squawk Box."
He acknowledged that Sen. Bernie Sanders had contributed to that climate during his Democratic primary battle with Clinton. In his view, Clinton has not taken part in stoking protectionism.
To be sure, a majority of congressional Democrats also oppose TPP.